HMS GORGON & THE ‘BOTANY BAY ESCAPEES’

‘Perched precariously on the edge of an impenetrable continent, he threat of starvation constantly present, death was never remote from the tiny colony’. Dr. Bryan Gandevia, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 61 Part 1, 1975

1791 – 21 September, Sydney: HMS Gorgan, a converted warship, reached Sydney Cove in September 1791. She carried few prisoners. Her Captain John Parker’s principal task was to return the marines of Sydney’s ‘troubled’ garrison to England.

This was a repeat performance of a rescue mission stitched up by Governor Phillip. In Mach 1790 Waaksamheyd  lifted the stranded crew of HMS Sirius off Norfolk Island.

Phillip had pressured Deter Smidt her captain to sail Waaksamheyd under a false flag. Flying ‘English Colours’ the Dutch ship returned the Royal Navy’s men to England. See: The Flying Dutchman and the Botany Bay Escapees

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Gorgan’s troop were marines from the military arm of the Royal Navy. They too had been integral to Britain’s invasion of New Holland in 1788. Overdue for repatriation most were overjoyed at the prospect of a safe return to their homeland.

The year before, March 1790, Governor Phillip, to save ‘his people’ – white people – from starvation and near certain death, evacuated 50% of Sydney’s white population to Norfolk Island. See: Dead Aborigines Don’t Eat

HMS Sirius after landing her evacuees and supplies hit a submerged reef and sank. The Sirius crew (150) were stranded on Norfolk Island along with the evacuees.

As early as February 1788 the island had been occupied to prevent the Frenchman Jean-Francois La Perouse from claiming it. A satellite settlement had been established Baby- farming  its principal function.

Initially in this transaction the mothers were convicts and the fathers carefully selected marines and sailors of the ‘First Fleet’. The most well-known coupling was Anne Innet with Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King RN.

Norfolk their first son was born on the island in 1789. Their second child also a son,Sydney, was born at Sydney in 1790.

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In Sydney 1791many of these families were still on Norfolk Island two (2) weeks sailing-time away. Only tiny HMS Supply  was available to ferry a few at a time to Sydney.

1791 – Sydney, 26 September: Queen a convict ship from Ireland arrived at the end of September. After discharging her prisoners, Queen was commandeered and sent off to Norfolk Island.

Queen retrieved the remaining marines iincluoding the quarrelsome Major Robert Ross ever a thorn in Governor Phillip’s side. See: Rules of Engagement

1791 – Sydney, 13 December: With the exception of Marine Lieutenant George Johnston and a few rank and file, the entire marine garrison with wives and children, began boarding HMS Gorgon.

1791 – Africa, 19 December: Gorgan departed Sydney for England via Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.

The voyage proved difficult. Ferocious winds broke spars and masts, ripped sails, snapped ropes and bones. As she sailed deeper into the southern oceans Gorgan encountered, as had Captain Hunter in 1788, ‘islands of ice’. All on board endured freezing conditions.  

1792

1792 – Cape Horn, 8 February:  In the early hours of the 8th of February 1792 Gorgon rounded Cape Horn.

1792 – Cape of Good Hope,11 March: A month later a relieved Captain Parker dropped anchor in Table Bay, Cape Town.

Parker again hoped for a quick departure but once more it was not to be. And the reason for the delay was truly extraordinary.

1792 – Cape Town,12 March: The very next day Horssen a Dutch vessel arrived from Jakarta. On board was Mary Bryant with her daughter Charlotte.

‘I [Tench] could not but reflect with admiration at the strange combination of circumstances which had again brought us together, to baffle human foresight and confound human speculation’. Marine Captain Watkin Tench, Sydney’s First Four Years, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1961

A year had passed since their escape from Sydney Cove in Governor Phillip’s cutter. Baby Emanuel was dead as was Mary’s husband Will.

In quick succession two (2) more Dutch vessels Hoonwey and Vreedenberg put in with more surviving escapees and a harrowing story.

For much of ther time Mary and her friends had been at Coupang, West Timor they were under control of cruel Captain Edward Edwards RN of HMS Pandora. See: Pandora’s Box and the Botany Bay Escapees

The newcomers disembarked from Hoonwey and Vreedenberg and joined Mary and Charlotte on Gorgan.  One escapee, James Martin a tall dark-haired Irishman, wrote ‘we was well known by all the marine officers which was all glad that we have not perished at sea’.

It would be an understatement to say Tench was gob-smacked when the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’ arrived at Cape Town, nor can there be doubt he related emotionally to their stories of ‘hardship and difficulty’.

Captain Edwards had been sent by the Admiralty to search for and arrest Fletcher Christian and as many Bounty mutineers as possible.

By the time HMS Pandora reached Tahiti Fletcher Christian had already fled for Pitcarin Island in HMS Bounty. There he set Bounty on fire   and settled down with other mutineers and their Tahitian wives.

Edwards rounded up fourteen (14) of those who stayed on Tahiti. Of those who survived the sinking of Pandora in August 1791 Parker took on board four (4) William Millward, James Morrison, Peter  Haywood and William Muspratt.

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1792 – Cape of Good Hope, 6 April: HMS Gorgan sailed from Cape Town for England. Mary Bryant had yet to face her worst nightmare. On the previous leg – Sydney to Cape Town – ice and cold had been the enemy but now, out of Africa towards England, it was ‘excessive heat’.

Marine Lieutenant Ralph Clark wrote; ‘hot as hell…playing the devil with the children’.

Clark was no disinterested observer. He travelled with Mary Branham his ex-convict common-law wife and Alicia, their 18 months old daughter (named for Clark’s much loved legal wife), together with William, Mary’s four (4) year old son, from a previous relationship. See: The Clue of the Scarlet Cloth

1792 – Gorgan at sea, May:  Clark recorded the death of five (5) children; ‘the children are going very fast…another died on the 4th May, another on the 5th’.

1792 – 6 May:  At 4 am on May 6 Charlotte died in Mary Bryant’s arms. Clark attributed the toddler’s death to ‘excessive heat’. By the middle of the month two (2) more marine wives and nine (9) children were dead.

1792 – England,18  June: Gorgan reached Portsmouth on 18 June 1792, the port from where five (5) years earlier – 13 May 1787 – convict Mary Bryant guarded by Captain Tench and marines of the Sydney Garrison, sailed for Botany Bay.

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1792 – England: The Bounty mutineers were transferred to HMS Hector to await court-martial. Its result were in general held to be unfair. On Tahiti Millward and Burkett had fathered children.

Among with Ellison the youngest crew member they were the only ‘Bounty’ men executed. At the end of October 1792 they were hanged from the yard-arm of HMS Brunswick.

1792 – 20 London, June: Meantime Mary with the four (4) surviving convict escapees were taken off Gorgan and lodged in Newgate gaol. They appeared before magistrate Nicholas Bond and Captain Edwards identified them as the ‘Botany Bay escapees’ he had arrested on Timor.

1792 – Old Bailey, 7 July: All escapees were charged with return ‘before expiry of sentence’ and remanded in custody to appear at the Old Bailey on 7 July 1792.

Since the Transportation Act Geo. 1 (1717[18] convicts found ‘at large within the kingdom before expiry of sentence’ attracted mandatory death.

Mary now a childless widow was desolate. She was not however without friends. It is not clear who – if anyone – approached James Boswell to defend the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’.

Their extraordinary story alone may have aroused Boswell’s interest linked as it was to the ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ and wreck of HMS Pandora.

Certainly sensational stories of tyrannical Captain William Bligh RN, mutinous Lieutenant Fletcher Christian RN and cruel Captain Edward Edwards RN and the horrors of ‘Pandora’s Box’, filled London and provincial newspapers for months.

Boswell’s motivation may have sprung directly from these accounts. But it is also possible an interested party intervened. Captain Watkin Tench, soon to publish his second book on Botany Bay – Sydney’s First Four Years – may have prompted Boswell’s interest. See: Boswell Goes Into Bat for the ‘Botany Bay Escapees’.

There is however another possibility. HMS Gorgan had on board an object of great interest.  K-1 a faithful copy of John Harrison’s H-4 ‘genius pocket-watch’ .

As Dava Sobel wrote so eloquently in Longitude;  ‘Harrison …wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch’. 

The ‘pocket-watch’ had been given into the care of Marine Lieutenant William Dawes the First Fleet’s scientific officer  by Rev. Nevil Maskelyne Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Now it was on its journey home to Greenwich Observatory where to this day it can be viewed reunited with John Harrison’s H4 ‘in a see-through cave’.See: Marine Lieutenant William Dawes and the ‘Eternal Flame’  

However Lieutenant Dawes did not return K-1 to Maskelyne at Greenwich Observatory. When HMS Gorgan departed Sydney Cove K-1 was with given into the care of Lieutenant Henry Ball RN.

As for Marine Lieutenant William Dawes he was on way to face court-martial and a certain death sentence.

‘Military and police raids against dissenting Aboriginal groups lasted from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. These raids had commenced by December 1790’. Professor Bruce Kercher, History of Law in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney 1995

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Sydney – 1790, 13 December: ‘Infuse universal terror…put ten [10] to death…cut off, and bring back the hands of the slain…two [2] prisoners I [Phillip] am resolved to execute the prisoners who may be brought in, in the most public and exemplary manner, in the presence of as many of their countrymen as can be collected’. General Orders, Governor Arthur Phillip RN, cited Tench. ibid.  See: Arthur’s Algorithm  

At first Dawes flatly refused to obey the orders given for the first of two (2) raids ordered by Governor Phillip in December 1790

Captain Tench too was uncomfortable with the orders. Phillip invited him ‘to propose any alteration of the orders under which I was to act’.

Tench proposed; ‘capture six (6)…a part should be set aside for retaliation; and the rest, at a proper time liberated, after seeing the fate of their comrades.

This scheme, his excellency was pleased instantly to adopt, adding if six [6] cannot betaken, let that number be shot’.     

Dawes stood at the head of his section as Captain Tench addressed the detachment of fifty (50) troops; ‘be ready to go out tomorrow morning [14th] at daylight with three [3] days provisions, ropes to bind our prisoners with and hatchets and bags, to cut off and contain the heads of the slain’.       

Dawes at first refused to obey. He offered the refusal through his Adjunct who no doubt threatened to arrest him. Tench advised he consult the fleet Chaplain Rev. Richard Johnson. Counselled on his military obligations Dawes agreed to join the raid.

1790 – Sydney, 17th December: The assault was unsuccessful. The detachment returned empty-handed,no prisoners, no heads. However they returned to a very different settlement than the one they left just three (3) days prior.

The Waaksamheyd from Jakarta had arrived that very morning. Sydney was alive with possibilities. See: The Flying Dutchmen and the Botany Bay Escapees

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Dawes wrote directly to ‘his excellency’ regretting his participation and stating his intention to refuse to comply if such an order was repeated.

1790 -Sydney, 22nd December: ‘Our first expedition having so totally failed, the governor decided to try the fate of a second, and ‘the painful pre-eminence’ again devolved on me.  The orders under which I [Tench] was to act differing in no respect from the last…’

Lieutenant Dawes refused ‘that duty’. Awaiting court-martial, Dawes would have been held under close arrest during HMS Gorgan’s voyage to England.

Should have been or would have been? That is the question? First we have to find Governor Arthur Phillip RN, ‘the least-known founder of any modern state – in this case Australia’.

Can it be done? Yes it can.

EPILOGUE

In 2010 Cambridge University Press reprinted Mary Ann Parker’s A Voyage Round the World in the Gorgon Man of War. Parker’s book is an important addition to the canon of early women’s travel writing’.

Mary Parker was widowed in 1795. She wrote the memoir to support her family. Her observations give valuable insight into the social divisions within the ‘oh so’ British white population glaringly obvious at the time of Gorgan’s Sydney’s visit – March 1791.

These divisions centred on Lieutenant John Macarthur of the New South Wales Infantry Corps. Just one year earlier, in June 1790, Macarthur, Elizabeth his pregnant wife and Edward their toddler son arrived on the second fleet – ‘Britain’s Grim Armada’.

Prejudice: Elizabeth Macarthur’s  attitude towards Mary Johnson, wife of ‘First Fleet’ Chaplain Richard Johnson, the only other white woman in the tiny colony of similar station’ makes sickening reading.

Her opinion of Mary; ‘a person in whose society I could reap neither profit nor pleasure’. Early Records of the Macarthurs

Pride: John ‘MacMafia’ Macarthur’s pride was boundless. The ‘pipes’ of the teetotaller who put the ‘Rum’ into the New South Wales ‘Rum’ Corps were scurrilous. Macarthur was the common denominator in the downfall of Governor Phillip’s immediate successors the ‘autocratic naval governors’ – Captain John Hunter, Lieutenant Phillip Gidley King and Captain William Bligh.

‘Rumour is a pipe Blown by surmises, Jealousy’s conjectures’. William Shakespeare, Henry IV, 

See: Machiavellian Macarthur Post Governor Phillip

 

 

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